Book Supplement: Three Hours North

Through the Glass

Suicide in the West End

Orpheus in Vancouver

Convergence Zone

Bordering on the Dream World

Tour of Vancouver, BC

Vancouver, BC

Book Reviews

We in Vancouver enjoy compiling the slender catalogue of our city's modesty. Where, but at nodes of public modesty, may a style or a politic pause to annihilate and build itself? Surfaces inflect our gestures. And vice versa. Each belief is an extension of a rhetorical space. The piety now is toward a webbed abstraction of vastness. The uniformly repeating screens of the emporia, with their shoddy articulations and moot committees and mysteriously interesting entrances and pedagogies and cherubic greeters, exude that bored cheer that can only reflect a collective diminishment.

Modesty can counter this diminishment. On our civic peninsula, modesty always becomes potently ironic. Beneath the blue vaults of the market, we prefer to seek out little remarked aquatic manifestations in order to notice the emblematic potentials of moving liquid and light.

So much is a patterning of domesticity--linoleum, leaf shadow, book spine. Most citizens wash cups. Psychology pours from our objects. Thus, when we are strolling, we wish to abandon salubrious habit to better welcome spontaneous transitions to collective states. For a while at least, we shrug off the theology of extravagance. Small causes can form large results. The artful redirection of liquidity may seem like a small thing--after all, what status do today's theorists grant fountains? But for us, rising jets, downward falls, combinations, or an oddly issuing spray happily divert us from the great constant impersonal desires so that we may notice and enjoy the supple nap and receptivity of human thought. Light and gaiety and movement stimulate our civic thirsts. Since generally indoors we are quarrelsome and demanding, we wish for an air of fête and refreshment in the streets and squares.

Why are Vancouver's fountains not truly bombastic, like their Baroque relations in the great European capitals and gardens? Is it because of the scale of the weather? The snowy cordillera? The Pacific? A deliberately affected nonchalance as in our fleecy sartorial style? Downtown in the economic district each fountain's site is scooped from the monetary grid, hidden among corporations, rather than symbolically radiating a public logic of civic identity and access. Here the water features seem gently irrelevant, or relevant only as cheerful prosthetics to the atmosphere of the logo. At the sparkling edges of pedestrian consciousness they dribble and froth. They are corporate fantasies. Yet stylistically their nostalgia is not for omniscience but for unfashionable, minor happiness; in this sense they flood the grid with its countertext.

If the expressive intent of the corporate fountain is logocentric, it is also post-architectural, in that its social rhetoric always exceeds or overflows causality at the same time that its personable scale is dwarfed by the immovable economy. In spite of intention, our fountains can't be monuments. After initial excursions among the office buildings and little parks and squares, we are delighted to reflect that the modest water features of our city are not planned civic expenditures but mostly private or corporate gifts. It is the unique fate of the gift to be consistently misinterpreted by the receiver.

The potential of a fountain seems to draw toward it a verbal rhetoric of heightened politesse, as if the speaker or writer is invisibly bewigged, powdered, about to perform a minuet. Says a report by the Women's Centennial Committee of Vancouver (donors of the famously spraying stainless steel crab) in 1966, "To bring together architecture and sculpture, and weave them around a theme of water, is to symbolize Vancouver in the most profound manner possible." In this sentence the theme of water is a diversion that ritually formalizes the grammatical symmetry between built form and the idea of the city. We enjoy thinking of our peninsula as a sort of liquid-filled decorative paperweight. The archive abounds in such ritual niceties. Documents there represent a dreamily democratic polis where citizens walk about and freely linger at the cafes along the commercial streets, where neighbors meet and chat over drinking fountains at lunchtime or coffee breaks, where "unconventional" lifestyles add vitality to the streets, where the day is a tissue of little social relaxations and enhancements. In this archival city, to sit, to relax, to walk, to find relief are public actions.

In April 1959, an archived clipping relates, "A generous and thoughtful lady, the late Mary Eleanor Stewart left the city... $5,000 for the purpose of erecting a fountain at Victory Square... I for one am consumed with hope that something fine will result.... We are so woefully lacking in such amenities which do so much to give personality to a city and help atone for everlasting commercialism, chrome, cement and unsightly car parking, not to mention untidy lots and dump-like mounds." In the modern seats of the archive we ponder deeply, attempting and failing to recall the image of a fountain at Victory Square park. We feel the energetic thrill of the discovery of a hidden injustice. We would bring the public eye to this scandalous matter of the disappearance of Mary Eleanor Stewart's fountain bequest. What a disappointment it was, then, already having recruited several people to the cause, when later walking at said park we saw there a drinking fountain embellished with a plaque displaying Mrs. Stewart's now-familiar name. It was polished black granite, four-headed, canted gently outward, with precisely elliptical basins, very grand as far as drinking fountains go. We bent to drink from it, and the fountain was dry. But then the category of fountains opened. Many would be invisible, fountains we passed daily but could not recall, dormant, removed, seasonal, lapsed, somewhat shy or retiring or spurting contrary to intention. Our fountains would possess pathos. They are wallflowers.

Beside the Hydro building, a faux-romantic brook. At Barclay Park, in a rounded pool, a $12,000 reconstituted marble gurgling basin backed with rhododendrons, as specified and overseen by the donor Miss Wilkinson Brighouse in 1986. At 666 Burrard Street, the marvelous sunken grotto of foaming triangulated brick, the air swaying, the infant grove, the screen of moving foliage above. Across the arterial, an indigenous planting of horsetails and ferns beside modernity's trickling pelvic bronze work. At the courthouse, the perpetually expressive Turneresque fogs trapped in the glass wall of the dormant curtain of water. Raised pools reflecting the skewed architecture of the failing superstore. The demure fountaining bronze fish of Water Street. The silent neon downpour of the old Niagara Hotel. The entire dribbling corridor of Dunsmuir Street, from the viaduct to Coal Harbour. Corporate fountains drooling goofily. Public fools.

We have set out to sketch the terrain of a future analysis. It is not yet the time to present findings. Our method will be the synthesis of bodily intuitions, historical research, friendship, and chance. Music and food will also play a part. We do expect that each of these economies will find its antithesis in a fountain somewhere, that inquiry will erupt from its own methodological grid like syllables from our teeth and lips. We expect to be deliriously misinterpreted.

We fountain, always astonished by the political physiology of laughter.

Lisa Robertson is a poet who resides in Vancouver. Her new book, The Weather, will soon be out on New Star Books.